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Roman Sites
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Tabgha Israel
Sunday 26th August1990
Tabgha
Christian site
Good access for the disabled Free access to the monument
Roman name: Heptapegon
Roman Province: Samaria
Country: Israel
Province: Galilea (Golan)
Nearest town: Teverya (Tiberias)
Nearest village: En Sheva
 

Origins

Two miles west of Capernaum lies what Josephus referred to as the "well of Capernaum."  Also known as Heptapegon, el-Oreme, En Sheva, 'En Sheva, et-Tabgha. The name derives from the Greek Heptapegon(from the "seven springs" once known there), the name was later corrupted to Tabgha. This is the traditional location for several episodes in Jesus' ministry. 

The seven springs that emerged at Tabgha (today only six have been discovered) produced warm water, which in turn attracted the fish because of algae growth. This meant that the area may have been popular with fishermen for thousands of years. Recently a harbour was discovered, the curved western breakwater being 60 meters and another 40 metres long.

Tabgha is the traditional location for the calling of the disciples. It is believed amongst Christians that Jesus walked along the shore at this spot and called out to Simon and Andrew who were fishing. Jesus later called two other brothers (James and John) who were preparing their nets. All men followed his calling. Tabgha is also associated with the teaching of the Beatitudes. Later at this spot Jesus is said to have restored Peter to his old position amongst the disciples, after the latter had denied him three times at Gethsemane. Catholic Christians believe this was the occasion when Peter was made the single leader of the Church. The most famous at Christian occasion at Tabgha, however, is the miracle of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes, also known as the ‘feeding of the 5000’. However, this belief is based on a mistaken identification of the place by early pilgrims, because the Scripture says that it took place in a remote place by Bethsaida.

The Site

Nevertheless, during Late Roman times the first buildings were erected to commemorate these events. The earliest building at Tabghawas a small chapel (18 x 9.6 m) from the 4th century CE; only a part of its foundations was uncovered. This was probably the shrine described by the pilgrim Egeria in 383:

In the same place (not far from Capernaum) facing the Sea of Galilee is a well watered land in which lush grasses grow, with numerous trees and palms. Nearby are seven springs which provide abundant water. In this fruitful garden Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. The stone upon which the Master placed the bread became an altar. The many pilgrims to the site broke off pieces of it as a cure for their ailments.

She further listed some steps on the shoreline where Jesus once stood; an adjoining grassy field where Jesus fed the people with the five loaves and the two fishes; and a nearby cave on the "mountainside" where Jesus preached the Beatitudes. She only mentions one religious building (a church containing the stone on which Jesus placed the bread when dividing it for the multitude), but modern archaeological research found that small chapels had been built at all three sites during the second half of the 4th century.

In the 5th century, the church was rebuilt and enlarged into a large monastery and a church decorated with exquisite mosaic floors was built on the site. The complex covered an area of 56 x 33 m. and included courtyards and many rooms used as workshops for a variety of crafts as well as for lodging for the monks and the many pilgrims who came to visit. However, this building and the two nearby chapels were destroyed sometime in the 7th century, probably at the time of the Sassanid Persian invasion or possibly during the Arab invasion later. Bishop Arculf, who visited the place in 670, found only a grassy and level plain with no traces of buildings, except for a few columns around a spring. The small chapel on the lakeshore was rebuilt sometime later, but the Crusaders found it in ruins when they arrived in 1099. They rebuilt it, but this chapel was also destroyed in 1187, after the defeat of the Crusaders at Hattin. Rebuilt in about 1260, the chapel was razed to the ground only three years later by the Mamluks in 1263.

The Church

In the 1980s, after excavation, the church was restored to its Byzantine form, incorporating portions of the original mosaics.

The basilical church is divided by two rows of columns into a central hall and two aisles. In the eastern wall is a semi-circular apse and on either side of it, rooms for the officiating clergy. A raised platform in front of the apse is surrounded by a chancel screen and at its centre an untrimmed stone was preserved under the altar. This is the traditional site of the miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes. A mosaic depicting a basket of bread flanked by two fish was found behind the untrimmed stone. It was added in the 6th century, suggesting the stones significance; today it is displayed in front of the altar. The artist was apparently unacquainted with the fish in the lake as none have two dorsal fins. 

The church is famous for its mosaics, unique among Byzantine churches in the Holy Land. Most of the floor of the church is decorated in ordinary geometric patterns. The unique principal mosaics decorate both sides of the transept. Particularly well preserved is the one on the left of the platform, a square carpet (6.5 x 5.5 m.) bordered with a band of lotus flowers.

The carpets are decorated with multi-coloured representations of the local flora and fauna, interspersed with several buildings. The flowers and animals, mainly birds, are so naturalistically depicted that it is possible to identify lotus, oleander and lily; also duck, snipe, heron, goose, dove, swan, cormorant, flamingo and stork. A tower marked with bands bearing Greek letters, probably for measuring the water level of the Sea of Galilee (known as a "nilometer"), is also depicted.

The present Chapel of the Primacy of Peter was built by the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land in 1933. The nearby Benedictine monastery and Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes was consecrated in 1982.

Lake Tiberias - cool at seven then the mourning, after that a boiling cauldron.
Lake Tiberias - cool at seven then the mourning, after that a boiling cauldron.
Menno adding to his tan on a boat - not much else to do in Tiberias.
Menno adding to his tan on a boat - not much else to do in Tiberias.
Tabgha, oasis on the shores of Lake Tiberias, complete with a hidden treasure.
Tabgha, oasis on the shores of Lake Tiberias, complete with a hidden treasure.
Tabgha church. Simple yet beautiful, with all those mosaics..
Tabgha church. Simple yet beautiful, with all those mosaics..
The Byzantine mosaic floor - animals and plants as far as the eye can see.
The Byzantine mosaic floor - animals and plants as far as the eye can see.
The 'lovers', now two very famous ducks.
The 'lovers', now two very famous ducks.
This part refers to the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes.
This part refers to the Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fishes.

The Visit

We had got it into our heads to do a quick visit of northern Israel from the town of Tiberias. First stop before heading up to the Golan heights and the Banyas waterfalls was the coastal site of Tabgha. And that was a very worthwhile stop. The coast was lovely, the church beautifully restored, the Byzantine mosaics amazing. If you think about the number of times this place was destroyed and rebuilt, the mosaics are wonderfully preserved. My only displeasure was with the postcards they sold there, showing the 'actual' route that Jesus took, while walking on Lake Tiberias!

Bibliography

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